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Summary

This RFC proposes to remove the runtime system that is currently part of the standard library, which currently allows the standard library to support both native and green threading. In particular:

  • The libgreen crate and associated support will be moved out of tree, into a separate Cargo package.

  • The librustrt (the runtime) crate will be removed entirely.

  • The std::io implementation will be directly welded to native threads and system calls.

  • The std::io module will remain completely cross-platform, though separate platform-specific modules may be added at a later time.

Motivation

Background: thread/task models and I/O

Many languages/libraries offer some notion of "task" as a unit of concurrent execution, possibly distinct from native OS threads. The characteristics of tasks vary along several important dimensions:

  • 1:1 vs M:N. The most fundamental question is whether a "task" always corresponds to an OS-level thread (the 1:1 model), or whether there is some userspace scheduler that maps tasks onto worker threads (the M:N model). Some kernels -- notably, Windows -- support a 1:1 model where the scheduling is performed in userspace, which combines some of the advantages of the two models.

    In the M:N model, there are various choices about whether and when blocked tasks can migrate between worker threads. One basic downside of the model, however, is that if a task takes a page fault, the entire worker thread is essentially blocked until the fault is serviced. Choosing the optimal number of worker threads is difficult, and some frameworks attempt to do so dynamically, which has costs of its own.

  • Stack management. In the 1:1 model, tasks are threads and therefore must be equipped with their own stacks. In M:N models, tasks may or may not need their own stack, but there are important tradeoffs:

    • Techniques like segmented stacks allow stack size to grow over time, meaning that tasks can be equipped with their own stack but still be lightweight. Unfortunately, segmented stacks come with a significant performance and complexity cost.

    • On the other hand, if tasks are not equipped with their own stack, they either cannot be migrated between underlying worker threads (the case for frameworks like Java's fork/join), or else must be implemented using continuation-passing style (CPS), where each blocking operation takes a closure representing the work left to do. (CPS essentially moves the needed parts of the stack into the continuation closure.) The upside is that such tasks can be extremely lightweight -- essentially just the size of a closure.

  • Blocking and I/O support. In the 1:1 model, a task can block freely without any risk for other tasks, since each task is an OS thread. In the M:N model, however, blocking in the OS sense means blocking the worker thread. (The same applies to long-running loops or page faults.)

    M:N models can deal with blocking in a couple of ways. The approach taken in Java's fork/join framework, for example, is to dynamically spin up/down worker threads. Alternatively, special task-aware blocking operations (including I/O) can be provided, which are mapped under the hood to nonblocking operations, allowing the worker thread to continue. Unfortunately, this latter approach helps only with explicit blocking; it does nothing for loops, page faults and the like.

Where Rust is now

Rust has gradually migrated from a "green" threading model toward a native threading model:

  • In Rust's green threading, tasks are scheduled M:N and are equipped with their own stack. Initially, Rust used segmented stacks to allow growth over time, but that was removed in favor of pre-allocated stacks, which means Rust's green threads are not "lightweight". The treatment of blocking is described below.

  • In Rust's native threading model, tasks are 1:1 with OS threads.

Initially, Rust supported only the green threading model. Later, native threading was added and ultimately became the default.

In today's Rust, there is a single I/O API -- std::io -- that provides blocking operations only and works with both threading models. Rust is somewhat unusual in allowing programs to mix native and green threading, and furthermore allowing some degree of interoperation between the two. This feat is achieved through the runtime system -- librustrt -- which exposes:

  • The Runtime trait, which abstracts over the scheduler (via methods like deschedule and spawn_sibling) as well as the entire I/O API (via local_io).

  • The rtio module, which provides a number of traits that define the standard I/O abstraction.

  • The Task struct, which includes a Runtime trait object as the dynamic entry point into the runtime.

In this setup, libstd works directly against the runtime interface. When invoking an I/O or scheduling operation, it first finds the current Task, and then extracts the Runtime trait object to actually perform the operation.

On native tasks, blocking operations simply block. On green tasks, blocking operations are routed through the green scheduler and/or underlying event loop and nonblocking I/O.

The actual scheduler and I/O implementations -- libgreen and libnative -- then live as crates "above" libstd.

The problems

While the situation described above may sound good in principle, there are several problems in practice.

Forced co-evolution. With today's design, the green and native threading models must provide the same I/O API at all times. But there is functionality that is only appropriate or efficient in one of the threading models.

For example, the lightest-weight M:N task models are essentially just collections of closures, and do not provide any special I/O support. This style of lightweight tasks is used in Servo, but also shows up in java.util.concurrent's exectors and Haskell's par monad, among many others. These lighter weight models do not fit into the current runtime system.

On the other hand, green threading systems designed explicitly to support I/O may also want to provide low-level access to the underlying event loop -- an API surface that doesn't make sense for the native threading model.

Under the native model we want to provide direct non-blocking and/or asynchronous I/O support -- as a systems language, Rust should be able to work directly with what the OS provides without imposing global abstraction costs. These APIs may involve some platform-specific abstractions (epoll, kqueue, IOCP) for maximal performance. But integrating them cleanly with a green threading model may be difficult or impossible -- and at the very least, makes it difficult to add them quickly and seamlessly to the current I/O system.

In short, the current design couples threading and I/O models together, and thus forces the green and native models to supply a common I/O interface -- despite the fact that they are pulling in different directions.

Overhead. The current Rust model allows runtime mixtures of the green and native models. The implementation achieves this flexibility by using trait objects to model the entire I/O API. Unfortunately, this flexibility has several downsides:

  • Binary sizes. A significant overhead caused by the trait object design is that the entire I/O system is included in any binary that statically links to libstd. See this comment for more details.

  • Task-local storage. The current implementation of task-local storage is designed to work seamlessly across native and green threads, and its performs substantially suffers as a result. While it is feasible to provide a more efficient form of "hybrid" TLS that works across models, doing so is far more difficult than simply using native thread-local storage.

  • Allocation and dynamic dispatch. With the current design, any invocation of I/O involves at least dynamic dispatch, and in many cases allocation, due to the use of trait objects. However, in most cases these costs are trivial when compared to the cost of actually doing the I/O (or even simply making a syscall), so they are not strong arguments against the current design.

Problematic I/O interactions. As the documentation for libgreen explains, only some I/O and synchronization methods work seamlessly across native and green tasks. For example, any invocation of native code that calls blocking I/O has the potential to block the worker thread running the green scheduler. In particular, std::io objects created on a native task cannot safely be used within a green task. Thus, even though std::io presents a unified I/O API for green and native tasks, it is not fully interoperable.

Embedding Rust. When embedding Rust code into other contexts -- whether calling from C code or embedding in high-level languages -- there is a fair amount of setup needed to provide the "runtime" infrastructure that libstd relies on. If libstd was instead bound to the native threading and I/O system, the embedding setup would be much simpler.

Maintenance burden. Finally, libstd is made somewhat more complex by providing such a flexible threading model. As this RFC will explain, moving to a strictly native threading model will allow substantial simplification and reorganization of the structure of Rust's libraries.

Detailed design

To mitigate the above problems, this RFC proposes to tie std::io directly to the native threading model, while moving libgreen and its supporting infrastructure into an external Cargo package with its own I/O API.

The near-term plan

std::io and native threading

The plan is to entirely remove librustrt, including all of the traits. The abstraction layers will then become:

  • Highest level: libstd, providing cross-platform, high-level I/O and scheduling abstractions. The crate will depend on libnative (the opposite of today's situation).

  • Mid-level: libnative, providing a cross-platform Rust interface for I/O and scheduling. The API will be relatively low-level, compared to libstd. The crate will depend on libsys.

  • Low-level: libsys (renamed from liblibc), providing platform-specific Rust bindings to system C APIs.

In this scheme, the actual API of libstd will not change significantly. But its implementation will invoke functions in libnative directly, rather than going through a trait object.

A goal of this work is to minimize the complexity of embedding Rust code in other contexts. It is not yet clear what the final embedding API will look like.

Green threading

Despite tying libstd to native threading, however, libgreen will still be supported -- at least initially. The infrastructure in libgreen and friends will move into its own Cargo package.

Initially, the green threading package will support essentially the same interface it does today; there are no immediate plans to change its API, since the focus will be on first improving the native threading API. Note, however, that the I/O API will be exposed separately within libgreen, as opposed to the current exposure through std::io.

The long-term plan

Ultimately, a large motivation for the proposed refactoring is to allow the APIs for native I/O to grow.

In particular, over time we should expose more of the underlying system capabilities under the native threading model. Whenever possible, these capabilities should be provided at the libstd level -- the highest level of cross-platform abstraction. However, an important goal is also to provide nonblocking and/or asynchronous I/O, for which system APIs differ greatly. It may be necessary to provide additional, platform-specific crates to expose this functionality. Ideally, these crates would interoperate smoothly with libstd, so that for example a libposix crate would allow using an poll operation directly against a std::io::fs::File value, for example.

We also wish to expose "lowering" operations in libstd -- APIs that allow you to get at the file descriptor underlying a std::io::fs::File, for example.

On the other hand, we very much want to explore and support truly lightweight M:N task models (that do not require per-task stacks) -- supporting efficient data parallelism with work stealing for CPU-bound computations. These lightweight models will not provide any special support for I/O. But they may benefit from a notion of "task-local storage" and interfacing with the task scheduler when explicitly synchronizing between tasks (via channels, for example).

All of the above long-term plans will require substantial new design and implementation work, and the specifics are out of scope for this RFC. The main point, though, is that the refactoring proposed by this RFC will make it much more plausible to carry out such work.

Finally, a guiding principle for the above work is uncompromising support for native system APIs, in terms of both functionality and performance. For example, it must be possible to use thread-local storage without significant overhead, which is very much not the case today. Any abstractions to support M:N threading models -- including the now-external libgreen package -- must respect this constraint.

Drawbacks

The main drawback of this proposal is that green I/O will be provided by a forked interface of std::io. This change makes green threading "second class", and means there's more to learn when using both models together.

This setup also somewhat increases the risk of invoking native blocking I/O on a green thread -- though of course that risk is very much present today. One way of mitigating this risk in general is the Java executor approach, where the native "worker" threads that are executing the green thread scheduler are monitored for blocking, and new worker threads are spun up as needed.

Unresolved questions

There are may unresolved questions about the exact details of the refactoring, but these are considered implementation details since the libstd interface itself will not substantially change as part of this RFC.

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